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How to use a steam cleaner on rugs, upholstery and more

Lifting carpet stains, polishing tile grout, de-griming the kitchen counters — here are the smartest ways to put steam cleaners to work, according to experts.
"If you've never used a steam cleaner you'll be blown away by how easy it is," Michelle Hansen told TODAY Home.
"If you've never used a steam cleaner you'll be blown away by how easy it is," Michelle Hansen told TODAY Home.Alamy

Steam cleaners might be breakout stars on Tik Tok (what is it about sucking up dirt that's so satisfying to watch?), but turns out they're worth the hype. These appliances use high-heat water vapor to dissolve dirt and remove stains. Some have a large water canister and several attachments (similar to a vacuum cleaner), others are handheld and can fit into tight crevices.

"If you've never used a steam cleaner, you'll be blown away by how easy it is. They're so useful that I recommend every household have one — I think they're just as important as a vacuum cleaner," Michelle Hansen, an organizing expert and founder of Practical Perfection, told TODAY Home. Hansen has discovered a few surprising things to clean with steam, including golf clubs and tire rims.

Cleaning with steam is a natural fit for areas with lots of non-porous surfaces, like the kitchen and bathroom, as well as sealed wood flooring and tile (although it's always best to confirm with the manufacturer if you're uncertain). You can also use steam cleaners on some textiles, depending on the material. We polled experts on the best places to use a steam cleaner in your home.

How to steam clean rugs, upholstery and other fabrics

Research first.

Before you begin, check the item's care label (if it has one), or contact the manufacturer to find out if high-heat steamer cleaning is appropriate. "When you buy a rug or a piece of furniture, it usually comes with fabric content information and a care label — put that in the place where you keep all your instruction manuals and hang onto it," said Wayne Edelman, CEO of Meurice Garment Care, a dry cleaning service company in New York that specializes in clothing and home interiors.

Synthetics love steam.

Edelman said that, in general, you'll get better results from steam cleaning synthetic fabrics —Ultrasuede and Sunbrella are two great candidates — rather than linen, silk, leather or velvet. Heavy cotton can usually be cleaned with steam, but you'll want to be careful not to let the appliance shoot water onto it (only vapor), since that can lead to visible marks.

Vacuum thoroughly.

Whether you're cleaning a rug or a piece of furniture, always start with a thorough vacuuming session. "If you don't remove the surface dirt before steam cleaning, you're essentially creating mud," said Edelman, "so get into the nooks and crannies and really go crazy."

Run some spot tests.

Before you begin cleaning with a steamer, aim the device at a towel to make sure you're getting a fine mist. "The 'spitting,' as I call it, is what can leave water marks," said Edelman. If it's your first time cleaning the item, always spot test with steam on an inconspicuous area.

Go to town.

Follow your specific steam cleaner's instructions; most have attachments specifically for upholstery. "I aim the steam cleaner at a 45-degree angle while having a microfiber cloth on the other side of the stain," said Hansen. “The steam blows the dirt and debris onto the rag.” Note that with some steam cleaners, the dirty water is redirected into the unit. If you're cleaning furniture, make sure to let the cushions dry fully (a day is ideal) before replacing them so you don't get into, as Edelman referred to it, "a mildew situation."

Know that soap will be needed — eventually.

Most steam cleaners aren't compatible with cleaning solutions, and Edelman said that water alone isn't usually enough for textiles. "When you use soap, it releases the soil, because the surfactant allows the water to carry the dirt away and not redeposit on what you are washing." So while steam cleaning can keep your textiles looking fresh in between washings, you still want to machine wash, hand wash or professionally clean your items, depending on their care instructions.

How to steam clean floors

As with textiles, vacuuming (or at least thoroughly sweeping) will get you the best results. "If you have hardwood floors or tile, you can easily mop the floors, depending on your attachments," said Hansen. There are also steam mops designed specifically for floors. Always check with your flooring manufacturer to find out if steam is safe. For example, certain laminate types may be damaged by the high heat. You should also spot test a small hidden area first.

Michelle Hansen shows what it looks like when you steam clean your floor. Michelle Hansen of Practical Perfection

How to steam clean tile grout

Many people who steam clean tile grout are shocked by the results, often not remembering what the original color was. "Over time, whether you realize it or not, tile grout gets dirty with caked-on food and other gunk like mildew, and a steam cleaner makes an otherwise daylong process only take a fraction of the time," said Hansen. It's best to clean and rinse the tile first before attacking it with steam. The soft nylon bristle attachment is safe on most tiles, and you can use a mop, sponge or microfiber cloth to wipe up the dirty water. If you're using a steamer to clean tile walls, start at the top and work your way down.

How to steam clean the kitchen

Along with the floors and countertops, there are many places where a steam cleaner's high heat can help dissolve the gunky, sticky mess that seems to take over. "Most people get overwhelmed at the thought of deep cleaning the kitchen, so they just don't,” said Hansen. “But then everything just builds up over time. With steam cleaning, the heat just melts the messes away with virtually no effort on your part." A few of her favorite places to de-grime and clean with steam include the areas behind the stove and refrigerator, the lining of the garbage can, your child's high chair (you may need to remove the padding first), inside the oven and refrigerator and on faucets to remove hard water stains.

Yes, you can steam clean your oven!Michelle Hansen of Practical Perfection

How to steam clean the bathroom

In this often-visited spot, Hansen likes to use the steam cleaner on places with lots of crevices, such as the toilet and shower door rail. Of course, steaming cleaning is also ideal for tiled walls and floors, fixtures, windows and mirrors. Although you may prefer to also use traditional cleaning and sanitizing products sporadically, steam cleaning will help loosen the soap scum and other gunk that tends to build up in the bathroom.